Medardo Rosso *
«Limit-infinity: the first is impossible, the second is natural»
This exhibition is definitely not about cultural salvage or a return to fashion: it is simply a late but well-deserved act of reparation and justice that has been too long in coming, a debt that inevitably had to be paid regarding someone who was the greatest Italian artist of the modern era.
And it is also a moral duty to make his work known de facto to the younger generations.
The last exhibition of the works of Medardo Rosso was organized in Italy dates back to the Venice Biennale of 1950.
As opposed to the massive and crass flood of ostentatious and often excessively flattering monographs on sculptors of all kinds, the most important book on Rosso, made with modest means, dates back to the courageous period just after World War II, to 1950, published by Edizioni del Milione. That same year saw a small volume by Nino Barbantini, followed only by a short color booklet with a lively text by Marchiori in 1966. After which come only a few essays, spread over time, written by Ragghianti, Valsecchi, Caramel, Carandente, Pirovano, Fezzi.
Rosso has also been included – on a par with others, but certainly not as a leading protagonist – in several histories of Italian sculpture in the 19th century.
In other countries, however, as many museums acquired some of the few available works, his name and his oeuvre were put in their rightful place, amongst the most outstanding protagonists of what is more correctly called modern art, or the start of modern art, rather than 19th-century art. In 1963 the Museum of Modern Art of New York held a large exhibition, and that museum’s publishing company issued the book Medardo Rosso by Margaret Scolari Barr.
Now, with the most complete exhibition possible, the aim is to demonstrate to what extent and how Rosso has been, in sculpture, not an “avant-garde” artist as people say today, but a true revolutionary, one of the very few that appear in any given century, because in practice he overturned a conception of sculpture that had lasted too long, without evolving into new developments. In his work we find effective revolutionary qualities, not delegated. Because Rosso has accomplished what no one else, perhaps, will be able to do or will dare to do for some time yet. After him even the best, those who seemed to be the strongest, the newest, not only here in Italy but also elsewhere, have fallen back into a conception of sculpture that is again that of the Renaissance, the conception that Rosso stubbornly fought against throughout his life.
Never before, in the modern era, has matter been so painfully possessed and tamed in a new way as in the work of Rosso.
But at what price?
How much solitude, how many defeats, how many doubts and reformulations, how much despair and tension before that matter could be subjugated with such genuine spontaneity that it seems utterly natural to this great, free spirit, to his tenacious and sensitive hands?
Rosso’s great accomplishment was to leave us not “museum pieces” but works of art more similar and closer to living beings than to conventional simulacra.
Furthermore, in his great effort, throughout his intense battle, with a revolutionary act he found, in soft wax, the most direct material, the most appropriate channel to interpret his vision, not caring about whether it is “eternal,” demonstrating his lack of interest in that survival, that “eternity” to which all sculptures of all ages have more or less openly aspired.
Certainly Rosso did not want to freeze his vision, to capture it in statues.
The reality he saw or the memory of it that had taken form inside him had to be reborn and exist in the air naturally, as do and as did for him the figures he portrayed, as do plants and flowers. In his very personal vision and in the resulting reconstruction of reality Rosso sought and grasped the “truth” of the people that appeared before his eyes: i.e. the constant truth of existing in the guise of a human being.
In the final and very fertile years of his creative activity he performed – like few of his European contemporaries – that supreme act that is granted to a very few artists, beyond which, intact and perpetual, lie the countenance, the essence, the soul of man.
Rosso managed – he alone – to free sculpture of its bulk and weight: he made it immaterial. An intuition nurtured at length, at the cost of years of trial and error and severe purification, taking him to the threshold of that limit beyond which the idea and the making of the work are one and the same.
His generous love and observation of the protagonists of the reality that interested him most, whether groups of persons, isolated figures, heads or busts or – in the drawings – atmospheres of places and people, twilight and afternoon, shadows and light, his way of being amidst people and nature with great love, allowed him to take his feeling, stripped of any sentimental content, beyond mere appearances in order to grasp an “absolute” of truth, and in that absolute, as a result, to grasp the true and innermost reality of things and men.
Rosso captured and made his own that ineffable substance of sculpture that is not transient, and he did so through moments, instants that at first glance appear to be the most fleeting, the most transitory possible. But that substance is secret, like all true treasures, and imperceptible to those who observe sculpture with opaque and vulgar eyes, even the noblest sculpture such as that of Medardo Rosso.
There is no gesture, no action in him, but only presence: the human presence of the model, I mean. Nothing issues from his sculptures, there are no protruding or dangling arms or legs that wriggle and rise, no folds, drapes or flutterings of garments, costumes and lace, posed nudes (the nude is not one of his themes) and hands, or hands holding something: there is only what is essential, his only viewpoint that goes directly to constitute the self-generating nucleus, the definitive form. In his works the accidental, the momentaneous, the transient, the unstable, the provisional, the precarious, the mutable and the mutant become formally eternal in a definite “forever.”
Rosso’s sculpture is not for those who like only episodes and contents.
He worked without chosen models – ancient or modern –, without effective masters, without canons, without pre-set schemes: because he had glimpsed a new expressive possibility in sculpture.
Having radically rejected the tradition and disinherited by it in turn, left alone and defenseless in the face of the torment of his unprecedented realization – uncertain and confused with others at the start – he was simply alone, clear, determined, profound and very certain at the end.
His affinities with the greats of antiquity were therefore not just apparent, because like them he achieved a synthesis by means of analysis.
So did we never realize how new the ancient, the substance of the ancient, the very essence of sculpture, has become in Rosso? We should be careful, however: his is not an art of cultural derivation, not a reflection of other eras and styles.
There are no archetypes, inert sediments deposited by tradition in his work: everything is new, drawn from himself, with a daring and rebellious vision of sculpture that had never been seen before him. Never has matter gotten closer to being human as in his small and far from numerous sculptures.
All alone, then, he crossed those borders established and fortified by centuries of tradition in which sculpture was closed and confined: confines and limits, for this reason, considered definitive, insurmountable and immutable, which had therefore become and been recognized by most people as natural.
Rejecting the sculptural “convention” out of hand, starting from zero, he was able to give us solitary masterpieces with which all eras can identify, from the most remote to the most recent, to our present, to the future of the others.
He certainly did not found a new school. How could such a singular, personal, individualistic artist have direct or indirect pupils?
His vision could not be transmitted to anyone, but had to be and remain – forever – his and his alone.
Everyday life was his model; he always and only placed himself in front of what he saw in reality, not stylemes, in front of what he encountered, alive, in the street where he so liked to go and mingle, to be a human being in the midst of human beings, in the lively bustle of the boulevards, in the warm, vivacious and witty encounters in cafes, the smoky rooms of bistros and brassèries, street corners, anxiously and curiously wandering – often at night – along the quays along the Seine or the trottoirs of stations, in the halls of hotels where we can imagine that he often suddenly stopped to pull from his pocket (his big pockets that contained a bit of everything) the odd piece of paper or a small notebook on which to jot down, in shorthand, those quick notations of light, dazzle, shadows, volumes in motion that are his drawings: short, quick, tiny, pithy and very intense, in which nothing is contrived but everything is the offspring of a direct view, an original spontaneity. He worked – when he worked – with great energy, with the speed of intuition, destroying much, never correcting but instead doing it again from scratch, as if the work had to issue forth in a single, apt though also tormented draft.
What is always surprising when one looks at one of his sculptures – especially and above all the last ones – is the unusual quantity of energy he was able to convey: and it is the kind of energy that generates masterpieces.
In all the sculptors of his period (with the exception of some – or even many – but not all the works of Rodin), we have the sense that they make “statues”: they design them, from sketches they proceed to the intended size by multiplying, they begin them and finish them in all their parts, above and below, in front, to the side, behind, they walk around the sculptures to see them and touch them with pride, from all sides: Rosso does none of this. He did not act in this way, though he did have the means, and the greatness of those means is demonstrated in certain instances. Medardo Rosso does not create “statues”: he only makes sculpture, without attributes.
Furthermore, he “made,” he did not “finish.” I think he never said, “I have finished,” but instead said, “I made” a new work. He created those elements of reality that had fascinated him in reality according to his own very personal vision; in him, art becomes direct experience, bearing witness to life and truth.
Rosso’s “form” is simply the mirror of his feeling, of his being a human being amongst humans, his unconventional way of looking at people: in it, he condenses and defines the poetic spirituality of his language as an artist.
Having never looked at a figure as an isolated object, on its own, but as something that in any case involves the environment and is engaged by it, what other means could he use to convey this way of seeing if not the ones he did use, unique, unrepeatable, exclusively his? Means in which the symbiosis between emotion of life and the resulting form of sculpture is absolute.
Therefore unlimited perspective, infiniteness, air, space, immateriality, light, color, reflections and counter-reflections of forms, movement of masses and volumes, expansion of boundaries, distancing and attempted appropriation of boundaries, abbreviations and variations, the sum of details and the abolitions of details: totality, not fragmentation; not closed but open forms.
That light that continuously moves and alters everything according to its angle and intensity, the physical space conquered by making sculpture, seem to be the active and shaping elements of his works, the raw materials of “his” material, in which he has injected a reserve of life and a poetry that will suffice for centuries. The heads of children that repeatedly appear in the not very wide range of themes in Rosso’s work are not portraits – though at times the initial and contingent pretext was portraiture – but states of mind. His states of mind, the moments of truth in which this big, tender and extremely sensitive man looked at children, as at the pure age that lies at the wellsprings of life. He looked at those children with great respect, with comprehension, wonder, love, tenderness and trembling, with extreme amazement and modesty, because only on their faces did he find something intact, uncontaminated, resembling his ideal.
He did not make them into pathetic little heads, but made them true, large, unique, almost disembodied apparitions, because the spirit that looks forth from those faces is so light, clean and eternal; they are materialized presences of a sentiment, of a poetic vision that becomes reality through two lights: an inner light and a physical light that for a few fleeting moments comes to rest on those visages, gilding them.
This is true of his last work, Ecce Puer, but also of the sick child, the Jewish boy, the boy in the sunlight and the hungry child in front of the stoves: moments of existence and of Rosso’s vision that cannot be erased, bearing concrete and coherent witness of how he saw and lived a reality, and not moments, though transient ones, of the life of those few children who chanced to become his models. Form, space and light become tangible truths.
He captured the ineffable instant of a smile, the deep and sonorous breath of laughter. Very rarely in art have human masks suffered and rejoiced so truly and eternally. Those of the ancient Greeks and Etruscans were restrained, stylized smiles, certainly quite mysterious, but so barely hinted at as to seem like emblems. In Rosso the laughter is real life, and it still echoes inside us, constantly renewed.
In the Bambina che ride (Laughing Girl) the light is also pale, sunny; the very lively eyes have the same expression as the very mobile lips, open in unabashed laughter. The “tondo,” the circular in this small bust becomes almost total; the forehead, the skull are taut, solid, dense, becoming almost but not completely normal.
That splendid, living, laughing creature has a kinship with Donatello, with his putti, settling on the same plane of quality.
In the Grande rieuse (Laughing Woman [Large Version]) the eyes and the flesh laugh together with the mouth. A light that would appear to come from above accentuates, as never before in any of his other works, that attempt to solidly interpenetrate the space, to unite the determinate contours of the sculpture with the indeterminate environment in which it is placed. In a later version, the failure to remove part of the counter mold is an original way to forcefully convey this intention.
It is the most physical, most voluminous, most sensual, most carnal of Rosso’s sculptures. Who was the woman that inspired this masterpiece in 1891? She has returned to the shadow, to that oblivion from which she resurfaces every time we look at this splendid, very lively work. Something Greek and something Lombard, together, interpenetrate in the grand light of Paris to take the “large laughing woman” back to that luminous mystery that always recurs in the history of sculpture, when it addresses the feminine countenance. Warm, full, like Parian marble touched by a Phidian, its pure state of flow makes it possible to believe in this sculpture without reservations, because what it asserts, beyond the form, has to do with the sentiments as well.
In the touching Bambino che mastica (Child chewing, or All’asilo dei poveri), the relief is reduced to a sheet without much thickness, to a flat and vertical plane that nevertheless goes into motion, turning, coming alive by means of the fragments and little morsels of light and shadow, with a tension similar or even equal to that of certain reliefs of antiquity. I am thinking – perhaps wrongly – of the large tondi, of the “half-size” statues, of the sculptures as slender as shards of Giovanni Pisano at the Baptistery in Pisa.
That biblical terribleness is certainly missing, but there is an equally daring form, an equally intense human passion, a melancholy, a pietas that are equally profound and authentic, and a “making” sculpture that is equally new, forthright, free of any already tested schemes.
In the gaunt Yvette Guilbert there is a sort of tragic way of suggesting and bringing out the character of the person, with coarse, abbreviated means, intentionally reduced to an essentiality without adjectives that shift the memory towards certain anonymous heads and severe Gothic crucifixes.
Sculpture seen as a shimmering and dynamic surface for a particularly thrilling and expressive moment of light and shadow. When did Rosso have this intuition?
It was in the passages, the dark aisles and archways of Brera, that as a very young man he had his first doubts about what a figure in space was or was not, and the first lucid intuitions of what was to become – at least in the figures represented in a standing position – the certainty of his very personal and unique way of looking at reality. Foreshadowing, it seems to me, the use of certain methods belonging to the kind of “shots” from above used only by a few great Impressionist painters and, above all, in cinema. This makes the figures stand out from the background, making them expand as if they had wide roots, deep in the horizontal plane, from which they emerge never in a straight manner, but always slanted and oblique. I am referring to the Uomo che legge il giornale (Man Reading), to the Bookmaker, to a figure (self-portrait?) of the Conversazione in giardino (Conversation in a Garden), to the majestic lost figures of the Impression de boulevard (Paris la nuit), so mysteriously retreating as if they were about to vanish, in a flash, into the shadows, swallowed by the night. Never before have I gazed with such moving regret at a masterpiece so tragically squandered (the war!), whose modernity will never fade, though we can only see it in a thrilling photograph that has fortunately survived.
To call Rosso an Impressionist sculptor is but a generic, convenient decision, and also an evident reduction. His particular greatness lies in that absorption and at the same time reflection of light, experiencing it as another form of matter, not abolishing the volume but nourishing it with this new substance: this, at least, in his most dazzling period, ever since he emerged, going beyond the moment, from the realistic chronicles of Milan to reach tenets that were his alone.
The Impressionist sculptors – or, more precisely, painter-sculptors – only modified the surface of the external modeling, splashing it with light as in their paintings, breaking it up into luminous and colored taches while leaving its internal structure intact.
The primary substance of sculpture, then, was not altered but merely encroached upon by these artists. Furthermore, Rosso never treated the “matter” of sculpture as it if were the “matter” of painting. He operated at greater depth, radically renewing – as we have seen – the way of understanding, seeing and making sculpture, managing with the power of results achieved to raise doubts and reconsiderations in the great Rodin, who was certainly not an Impressionist sculptor.
We should be very cautious, however, when we speak of the influence of Rosso on Rodin: there is the risk of falling into a reprehensible and naive jingoism, a cultural autarkism that due to his deeply nationalist (and Fascist) character distorted and deceived Ardengo Soffici himself, who was one of the first and most authoritative champions of the greatness of Rosso.
Proof of an effective and mutual esteem between the two forerunners and clear protagonists of modern sculpture, besides that of their lengthy acquaintance that began in the studio of Dalou where they worked together as assistants, can be found in the famous exchange of works: the Rieuse for the Male Torso now on view at the Petit Palais.
In any case, it is undeniable that in the Balzac something new happened in Rodin to subvert, to modify his naturalism that bordered too closely on historical echoes, his great ease as a shaper of forms. A different approach, a way of agitating and moving the material, more completely altered and broken; a way of presenting us with this personage not as a statue, but as a physical presence without monumental canons. A realism that gives us all the physical impact of Balzac, as well as his great spiritual and moral weight. A Balzac that becomes the actor and interpreter of himself, placed in a domestic robe, almost as if to underline the perishable physical nature of man.
Of course as compared to Rodin, the great tireless modeler, Rosso made much less in terms of quantity, though certainly not in terms of quality. Auguste Rodin, a rare and authentic “natural” genius of sculpture, is the absolute master of all forms, the outstanding, most creative, fluent and vital sculptor of the 1800s, whose «hands lived the life of a thousand hands,» as Rainer M. Rilke said. Like the water of a river, matter in his hands moves, flows, seethes and surges, becoming a natural, organic thing: archaic and modern at the same time.
The intuition and the conception seem to coexist and coincide in him without any friction with the making of the work itself. From his linear, rapid, essential drawing he shifts with confidence to the modeling, and it seems as if there is no difference or trace of difficulty for him in these two distinct genres. Everything happens in a genuine way through great exercise and, above all, by way of the great talent, the endless fertility of his personality.
Such a huge bulk of work entered the life of Rodin – and it is hard to understand how it could have been contained there – that it could have sufficed to fill the life not of one but of many sculptors of the same ilk. I say this only as a question of time, of the ability to stand up to the fatigue. But precisely due to this great quantity of work, Rodin ran the risk of being overwhelmed, and if anything Rosso helped him to shrug off, at least for once, at least in the Balzac, his vehement and at times rhetorical Michelangelism, for which he paid – also by way of too many official commissions – a heavy and often unjust price.
So the work of Rosso, with his more limited output, is thus more concentrated, less split into secondary and different branches: it is more unified and consistent, though less majestic as a whole.
More subdued, more human, it possesses an innate, utterly Italian intimacy that allows us to approach it more easily, without timidity or complexes.
Finally, in Rosso there is an intransigence, a way of keeping faith with his principles that never led him, once he gained full mastery of “his” medium, to any compromises. Compromises he did not accept – and this is proof of his moral stature – even when he stopped working, continuing to live for many years almost inert, refusing to remake himself, to superimpose a manner on what had been authentic, unrepeatable creation. Rarely has such a long and glorious career been concluded by such a profoundly honest and inflexible finale.